Painting: The Life of a Yangban: Hong I-sang (Eight Panels)

The yangban (aristocrats) were the political, intellectual, and cultural leaders of the Chosŏn Kingdom. They filled every office in the central and provincial governments. They owned, operated, and taught in each private and public school. They even dominated in the arts, producing the majority of lasting works of literature, art, and music during the Chosŏn period. The Life of a Yangban chronicles the important events during the lifespan of one of the Chosŏn Kingdom’s most famous yangban, Hong I-sang (1549 – 1615).

The artist, Kim Hongdo, finished The Life of a Yangban in the late eighteenth century to commemorate the life and accomplishments of Master Hong. Like many other paintings from this era, this painting was done so that it could fit on a folding screen. Each screen depicts a significant event in Master Hong’s life.

The Life of a Yangban, Modang, Hong I-Sang, 18th century, Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

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1. The First Year

This first painting depicts the first birthday party (tol) of the young Hong I-sang. The first birthday was particularly important in Korea because it signified the beginning of life for a young yangban. The one year-old child sits clothed in colorful clothes surrounded by family and friends. Displayed before him are various objects, including a brush, a book, and a money pouch, etc. The objects symbolize potential career paths that the young child will take. Here, the child reaches for the book, signifying that he will be a promising scholar.

2. Wedding Ceremony

In this second painting Hong, now a young man, rides atop a white horse in a wedding procession. Behind him, his new bride follows, covering her head. Two pairs of ducks, a Korean symbol of marriage, float and fly alongside the procession. Also, around several of the corners and inside the windows curious onlookers gaze at the newlyweds.

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3. Celebrating the Scholar

Riding a similar white horse Hong, now a man, rides into his hometown after successfully passing the highest level of civil service exams. His flowery headdress and the musicians announce Hong’s accomplishment to the village. The small parade brings a diverse crowd of people here to honor the young scholar.

4. A New Appointment

After the successful passing of the series of civil service exams, Hong is welcomed into one of his early appointments as a government official. He is accompanied by several officials and servants.

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5. The Arrival of the New Magistrate of Songdo

This time carried in a palanquin, Master Hong makes his way up to Songdo to become the new magistrate of the city; dozens of soldiers, servants, and officials accompany him.

6. The Minister of Defense

Hong I-sang lived during one of the most tumultuous times in Korean history, the Hideyoshi Invasions (1592 – 1598). During the early stages of the war, the king chose Hong to be the Minister of War. Here he is depicted working in that capacity as he is carried aboard a somewhat precarious chair with one wheel.

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7. The Minister of the Left

In this screen Hong enjoys a small firework display with a group of scholar-officials. Hong, now, the Minister of the Left, serves as the second highest-ranking government official in Korea.

8. Sixtieth Wedding Anniversary

During the Chosŏn period Koreans used a sexagenary calendar that repeated itself ever sixty years. So for Koreans the Sixtieth anniversary or birthday was an important event because it signified completion and longevity. Dressed in their finest robes, family and friends gather around the elderly couple to celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary. In this scene the elderly couple sits at the party table that the children prepared for their many years of loyalty.